By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007
When the ball shot against the blue of the sky, the onlookers gasped, and when it fell just short of the fence -- or, at least, where the fence will be -- they groaned. It is a sight familiar to Washington Nationals fans and players, who have watched so many balls come to earth on the warning track. Ryan Zimmerman turned and faced his teammates.
"It's still too far," he joked.
This was yesterday afternoon, hours before the Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-4, at RFK Stadium, long known as cavernous. It came not at the 46-year-old stadium that is about to close its doors to baseball, but rather on a patch of gravel and dirt not far from the Anacostia River, the surface that will serve as the club's new park next year.
Homers from reserves D'Angelo Jimenez and Robert Fick -- as well as a shaky save from closer Chad Cordero, who continues to be befuddled by the Braves -- were the most important events in the official part of the Nationals' day. But an hour-long program in which Zimmerman and teammates Ryan Church, Justin Maxwell, Wily Mo Pe?a and Brian Schneider took a bit of batting practice at the unfinished park put the focus where this franchise wants it -- on the future.
"It's cool with a capital 'C'," said Mark Lerner, one of the team's owners. "I think when we're all standing here watching that first ball go into the sky, it's thrilling."
A group of construction workers -- many of them on the job site at 5 or 6 a.m. -- joined the players, gathering for autographs. The players marveled at the new scoreboard, where a massive high-definition television will be installed, and thought to next year.
Yet as much as the Nationals want to focus on the new park, some of their important construction work continues at RFK, where just eight games remain. That involves building a roster for 2008, when players such as Jimenez and Fick may be gone. But they were an enormous part of last night's win, Jimenez hitting a two-run blast in the first that was his first homer for Washington, Fick following with a three-run homer in the third that put the Nationals up 5-3.
"To be honest with you guys, I haven't been coming through all year," Fick said in a phone call. "The fact that I could come through for the team was priceless."
In fact, the pair was in the ballgame not because they are part of the future, but because two others were on the bench. Jimenez started in place of struggling shortstop Felipe Lopez, and Fick's homer came in a pinch-hit at-bat for Dmitri Young. An inning before, Young lay prone on the ground at first, having taken a bad-hop grounder off the bat of Atlanta's Mark Teixeira off the side of his neck.
"I was scared for him," Fick said. "To see the big fella lying on the ground like that is not a good sight."
Head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz and Manager Manny Acta raced to Young's side, and the big first baseman eventually sat up, rose to his feet, played catch -- and stayed in the game. But by the time his next turn up came, Young had developed a bit of a headache, not to mention stiffness in his neck. Acta sent Fick to bat for him; Young is listed as day-to-day.
"I'd like to show Manny I have some good baseball left in me," Fick said, well aware of his uncertain status. He then put together one of his best at-bats of the season, fouling off four two-strike pitches before launching the ball into the right field bullpen.
That was enough for right-hander Jason Bergmann, who was down on his performance. "The first half of the game, I really didn't have a feel for any one pitch at any one time," he said. But Bergmann lasted six innings, allowing a three-run homer to Chipper Jones and a solo shot to backup catcher Corky Miller.
With that, the Nationals handed a 5-4 lead to the same two men who couldn't protect an advantage the night before. Unlike Jimenez and Fick, Jon Rauch and Cordero figure to be in the new bullpen on Opening Day next April, when a new era in Washington baseball begins.
But Friday night at RFK, Rauch gave up a run in the eighth, Cordero a run in the ninth, and the Nationals lost in 13. This time, Rauch pitched a scoreless eighth. The Nationals scored twice in the bottom of the inning, including when Austin Kearns ran over Miller in a thunderous collision at the plate. Thus, it was Cordero -- who seems to have something of a mental block against the Braves -- who made it interesting.
"I know he has a little bit of a rough time against them," Acta said, "but we can't be switching closers depending on the series."
Yet here was Cordero, loading the bases with one out, bringing Chipper Jones -- with his .429 career average against Cordero and game-tying double from Friday night -- to the plate.
"Nothing's in my head," Cordero said of the Braves. "I have the same mentality as I do against every other team. It's just for some reason, they just put the bat on the ball every time. They just kind of frustrate me."
Finally, he frustrated Jones, getting him to ground a fastball to shortstop to start a game-ending double play.
Thus, there are just eight games left at RFK, countless more at the new park.
"It's getting there," Zimmerman said. "You can see how it's going to be. It's pretty cool. I think we're all ready to see how it's going to end up. We can't wait."